Virtue ethics, as defined by Encyclopedia Britannica, is the “approach to ethics that takes the notion of virtue (often conceived as excellence) as fundamental”. (Virtue Ethics, 2009). Virtue ethics is centered upon motives, training, education, happiness, temperance, family, and friendship. Virtue is correlated to be the understanding or knowledge of what is good.
For an individual to be virtuous, they must be of good character. Therefore, virtue ethics is essentially ethics regarding moral character rather than consequences of actions or duties as do two other approaches to normative ethics.
The majority of virtue ethics theories developed from Aristotle. Aristotle declared that a virtuous person is essentially an individual that has virtuous or ideal characteristics or traits. These characteristics are naturally formed; however, they must also be nurtured and tended to in order to continue development. Once an individual establishes these virtuous or ideal characteristics, they become a stable person, thus able to choose right from wrong (Baker, 2013).
When a virtuous person chooses to do good, it is not out of obligation to duty or because they wish to avoid negative consequences, but rather because goodness is what is inside of them.
Whereas deontological or consequentialist theories aim to categorize universal principles which one may apply in various moral situation moral situations, virtue ethics theories address more generalized questions about life overall, such as how a person should live their life or what values one should instill in their families.
Some of these theories are Eudaimonism, which is Virtue Ethics in the classic connotation, also referred to as the happiness of good life theory, Ethics of Care, which was primarily developed by Feminist writes, and Agent based theories, with refer to common sense and intuition in regard to virtue.
All virtue theories acknowledge that human beings are born with innate characteristics, whether these characteristics are for good or bad (Baker, 2013).
All individuals have both good and bad in them, but through guidance and development, one is able to grow and nurture their good characteristics, which are the virtuous parts of human beings, and work even harder to rid themselves of the negative characteristics, which may be traits such as selfishness or dishonesty (Mijuskovic, 2007).
Virtue Ethics further argues that is a person possesses a certain virtue or quality, such as being kind, this person will be kind to others throughout their entire lives in all situations regardless of how difficult it may be at times. The factors that affect one’s virtue development are parents, grandparents, close family members, teachers, peers, role-models, the amount of encouragement and attention someone receives, and various exposures to different situations (Baker, 2013). The traits that one is born with are either grown and developed or done away with based on these factors.
Furthermore, once an individual is able to identify his or her virtues, they are then ready to make informed decisions based on who they are as a virtuous person and what they hold to be true (Mijuskovic, 2007).
An example of utilizing virtue ethics in decision making is if an individual is kind and generous and sees an individual struggling to cross the street. Rather than taking time to decide whether or not they should help this person cross the street, or what the outcome will be if the walk with this person, they will instantly decide to help the person based on their virtues of being kind and generous (Mijuskovic, 2007).
Another example of virtue ethics is if an individual is approached by his or her boss and asked to lie about a robbery that took place. Any rational person may think it would be ok to lie for their boss or may decide to do so out of the consequence of getting in trouble or the duty to be loyal to their supervisor. If a person is virtuous and holds the virtue of honesty to be true, they would automatically tell the truth.
Some objections to virtue ethics are as follows: Virtue ethics is self-centered and does not take into account the actions one takes in relation to others or the affect these actions may have on a larger picture (Mijuskovic, 2007). Furthermore, virtue ethics does not tell one how to act other than simply stating that one should follow his or her virtues or act in a virtuous way. This does not take into account the individuals that did not grow up with proper guidance and are unaware and un-educated in virtues and virtuous ways.
If virtues are not developed over time, can a person still become virtuous and be guided by virtues that an individual has not had as much time as others to develop?
Many individuals debate as to how individuals should live and what is ethically and morally right or wrong. It is sometimes difficult to determine what choices to make because any choice that is made will impact others or hurt someone in the long run. If an individual is married, but wishes to be with someone else or is simply no longer attracted to their spouse, should they stay with them based on the premise of loyalty being one of their virtues, or should they tell their spouse the truth based on the premise of being honest? Perhaps, they will do both as they hold both virtues to be of utter importance.
At any rate, they will still hurt their spouse by saying anything, and may go on living a miserable life if they stay with someone they can no longer stand to be around. Regardless of the ethical theories one utilizes, situations and decisions are sometimes tough and individuals must seek guidance and support from trusted people prior to making difficult choices.